Book Review: Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples by Meenakshi Jain

‘Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples’ by Meenakshi Jain is a landmark work. For scholars and enthusiasts alike, this book is a must-have as it presents a fascinating account of Indian history via Hindu temples and deities.

Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples: Episodes from Indian History by Meenakshi Jain. Aryan Book International, New Delhi. Rs. 690/-

If stones could speak, the story of Indian temples and deities would have been one of resilience and rebirth in the face of persecution and annihilation. But as things stand, discomfiting truth has been surrendered for a more ‘suitable’ narrative. With academics driving this shift of truth-gears, the task of unravelling facts has become even more riddled. Meenakshi Jain, Senior Fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research, takes this challenge head-on in her latest book ‘Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples’.

The book traces the journey of deities and pulls out historical references to outline how temples were built again and again despite being razed by Muslim invaders. With this approach, she establishes that temples were not just plundered for wealth but, more importantly, desecrated with the intention of wiping out the faith associated with them. She also traces the journey of deities to counter the argument that the practice of desecrating temples was started by Hindu rulers.

The first chapter of the book demolishes popular existing theories aimed at veiling the fact that Muslim invaders were inspired by their religion’s express and unambiguous hostility to idols. Jain discusses how apologists attempt to shield Islamic revulsion for idols by describing temples as “pre-eminently political institutions” that stood for “shared sovereignty of king and deity” and thereby became politically vulnerable. She points out how this argument conveniently excludes mosques since it is hard to recall a mosque built by a Muslim ruler and vandalized by a successive Muslim sovereign.

She also exposes the facile argument that mosques built of temple parts displayed “a productive engagement with local traditions of temple architecture.”  Jain points out how these approaches reduce temples to transactional institutions bereft of any sacredness. Not only do they assume harmonious translation of one type of sacred space in terms of another but also mute the millions who vested faith in these deities and temples.

Jain tears into the apologist assertion that Hindu kings routinely dishonoured temples of rivals from their own faith. She draws a clear distinction between image desecration which was practiced by the Muslim invaders and image appropriation which was in some cases practiced by victorious Hindu kings.

“Instances of appropriation of images by Hindu kings in times of conflict reiterated the contrast with Islamic iconoclasm. Almost without exception, Hindu rulers honoured the images they acquired, thereby reaffirming a shared sense of sacred. In Islamic case, seizure of an image entailed its very dismemberment.”

Jain tracks the journey of Kalinga Jina, Vatapi Ganesh, Buddha images from Magadha, Nag Kaliya and Vaikunth Vishnu to illustrate the shared sense of sacredness among various victorious Hindu sovereigns. She draws upon the Purva Karana Agama to bear out that it was incumbent on the triumphant king to bring deities from the vanquished kingdom and arrange for their worship. In contrast to this were the Muslim invaders who razed temples to the ground or disfigured the images.

The writer throws light on another facet that has received little academic attention. She discusses how the temples that had been destroyed were constantly reconstructed, ensuring continuity of faith and name, though without the grandeur. Interestingly, with temples drawing the ire of invaders, the deities were whisked away. Jain notes the numerous cases where they were either buried, replaced, changed hands, and a number of times even lost, damaged or forgotten.

Jain has created a unique place for herself in the academic world by taking on difficult subjects and challenging existing theories. Her books include Rama and Ayodhya, The Battle for Rama, Sati, and a three-volume study titled The India They Saw: Foreign Accounts of India from the 8th to Mid-19th Century. But her particular merit lies in her research approach and ability to tap into primary sources. She approaches her controversial subject with the equanimity of an academic and what gets sieved into her work is only authentic research material and observations – you are entirely on your own when it comes to views.

The chapters of the book are not organised in a linear or chronological order. Jain approaches her subject by geography – beginning with Multan where the invaders first struck and ending with south – and invites readers to begin with any chapter. I started with Delhi where I found myself drawn into the journey of the capital’s famous Iron Pillar from Udayagiri to Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque. Other chapters include Hallowed land of Krishna: Mathura, Braj, Vrindavan; Kashi and Ayodhya; Rajasthan; Eastern India; Gujarat; Maharashtra and Vijayanagara, Tirupati, Guruvayur.  Jain’s final chapter titled ‘Unanticipated Assault’ outlines how Hindu temples and deities remained vulnerable even when the threat of invaders had faded. She lists numerous instances when the temples faced danger from atheists, smugglers, rationalists, and skeptics in Independent India.

‘Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples’ is a landmark work. For scholars and enthusiasts alike, this book is a must-have as it presents a fascinating account of Indian history via Hindu temples and deities. Yet, it is not a book for the fainthearted as it makes no attempt to gloss over the accounts of desecration and destruction. Jain sticks to her trail of temples and deities and allow their journey to tell the story. You get to read snippets from an array of historical texts ranging from Rajatarangini of Kalhana to writings of Alberuni, Hiuen Tsang and Muslim and European historians and missionaries. With this book in hand, the sequence of events that followed the advent of Muslim invaders makes more sense: Hindu worshippers switching from temples to worship indoors, the advent of Bhakti movement and move to bhajans and leelas in place of idols. It does bring to mind the seminal work of Sita Ram Goel, but the eclectic approach of this book takes you beyond documentation of temple destruction. It draws on archaeological, literary as well as social sources besides the standard historical works to complete story of how countless faithful followers risked their lives trying to ensure the survival and continuity of our civilization.

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swadesh.singh@ifrc.org'

The author teaches Political Science at Delhi University